Tale as old as time: Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Girl falls for boy. Boy and girl make their romantic relationship official. Boy and girl break up two months later because boy showed up in an Instagram post from a party he didn’t tell girl he was going to, girl jumped to conclusions and then boy posted a weird comment on one of girl’s Facebook pics from like, four years ago, which rubbed girl the wrong way. Ah, social media and modern romance!
Social media is an enormous, unpredictable and inextricable part of our lives, and has been for some time. Sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter bring us together, but they can also tear us apart. They impact all kinds of relationships, both positively and negatively, but can take a particularly hefty toll on romantic ones. Why is this?
Well, one 2013 study in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found women thought that going “Facebook official,” publicly stating you are in a relationship with another person on your Facebook profile, meant you were monogamous. Men, on the other hand, saw “Facebook official” as a much more casual declaration. These results almost feel cliché (men fear commitment, women pine for it), but it does demonstrate the ambiguity of social media terms we use regularly to define relationships.
Another study, from 2011, revealed many people become jealous or anxious while using social sites to check up on others’ social media accounts. Because these sites make it so easy to continuously keep tabs on partners (it’s called “following” after all), we often give in to the temptation to monitor their every move. This alone can cause anxiety (“What am I missing?”) and ignite feelings of jealousy (“Why is my partner hanging out with her and not me?”).
Plus, we simply have way more information about our partners, sooner in the relationship, than ever before. Much of the information typically revealed on a face-to-face first date—and then some—can be deduced from browsing someone’s social media profile. The problem here is that viewers are only getting a small part of the whole story. One photo doesn’t capture an entire event; one profile can’t possibly capture an entire human being, even for users who post regularly.
One study published in Computers in Human Behavior even went so far as to link social media use with divorce, stating the more a couple used sites like Facebook, the higher the chance of divorce. However, social media use was never the only factor in the unraveling marriage. It could potentially serve as an outlet during a tumultuous time in the marriage (it’s easier to scroll than confront difficult issues) or offer a short-term solution to feeling unwanted (it’s pretty easy to look up old partners and reconnect).
But calling out your relationship online isn’t all bad news. Some studies have shown posting updates that include a romantic partner can increase intimacy and overall satisfaction, and can boost positive feelings toward your partner and vice versa.
In an extensive and eye-opening article from Inquiries Journal, Kenadie T. Wilkerson discusses Relational Dialectics Theory, or the idea that a romantically involved couple has to constantly “balance the effects of forces trying to bring them together and pull them apart simultaneously.” When it comes to social media, partners have to figure out how much they want to share as individuals and as a couple. Tensions in this realm can cause a lot of strain on intimacy inside the relationship (“Why did you post that private moment between us?”) and affect how others perceive a couple from the outside looking in (“Why are they never in pictures on Instagram together?”). Whether or not our social media selves line up exactly with our real life selves is a whole different story.
The bottom line? Social media can be a great place to flirt early on and shout your love from the rooftops, but it’s also a breeding ground for distrust and negative emotions deeper into the relationship. To ensure social media doesn’t destroy your romantic relationship, or, at the very least, to decrease the amount of damage it can do, follow these simple dos and don’ts.
1. Interact in person
Early on, flirting or testing the waters via social media is great! However, nothing online can replace the physical chemistry you feel when interacting in person. Get together and put your phones away to see what it’s really like to talk to this person, make eye contact and generally be in their presence. This also goes for couples who have been together for years. It’s easy to get wrapped up in an online image; who you are as a couple in real life is what matters most.
2. Don’t rely on online status
Whether or not your partner indicates that they’re in a relationship on Facebook shouldn’t define how you see your relationship status. Talk to them in person to hear what commitment means to them, and make sure you both align: What’s your love language? What’s theirs? The ways in which they treat you when you’re together (both alone and with other people) are much more important than an online label. Similarly, if it makes you feel good to post your status, tell them why and discuss it in person if your feelings differ.
3. Stay positive and factual
Leslie Shore, a communications expert, points out that sarcasm can be detrimental to online and text conversations during the early stages of a courtship. Until you know your new partner better (aka, until you’ve spent lots of time talking together in person), Leslie recommends staying “positive and factual” in communications. Tone of voice is tricky to convey on a screen.
4. Check in…with yourself
As mentioned above, many people find monitoring social media feeds and their partners’ accounts leads to feelings of jealousy or anxiety. So be sure to check in with yourself to make sure you’re not exhibiting more negative emotions than usual. If you find yourself drained, saddened or angry after browsing social media, it may be time to take a break.
5. Take a break
Delete your social media apps for a week (or a month!) if you recognize these negative emotions consistently swirling around. Live in the real world 24/7 for a bit before getting back into the social media universe.
6. Don’t jump to conclusions
What you see online isn’t always the whole story (in fact, it’s usually not even close). If something you see on social media worries you, confront your partner in person (without your phones on) to clear the air.
7. Consider the root of the problem
If you find yourself frequently confronting your partner about their actions on social media, dig deeper to find out what might be the root cause. Constantly seeing pictures of your husband with his friends may be a reminder that he never invites you to fun outings. That’s an important discussion that may have less to do with the photos and more to do with a lack of shared interests.
8. Don’t share everything
There must be some moments kept private between the two of you. If your entire relationship is posted on your social media sites, there’s not much left that doesn’t include the whole world. Keep some things sacred.
9. Don’t consult the internet first
Consider how you would feel if your partner queried the internet for a solution to a problem they were having before asking your advice. Social media accounts shouldn’t be the first place you hear about your partner’s fears, dilemmas or accomplishments—and vice versa.